The Most Festive Things to Do in San Diego This Holiday Season

Celebrate the season with ugly sweaters, ice skating, holiday lights, wine tasting, and more.

ice skating at Temecula Chilled
Photo courtesy of Visit Temecula Valley
Photo courtesy of Visit Temecula Valley

The holidays are here, and as usual, there’s no shortage of special holiday events in San Diego where you can get merry and bright. In fact, there are so many festivals and parties around town that it can be hard to decide which ones to go to. From pop up bars in the Gaslamp Quarter to wine tasting in Temecula, we’ve gathered the best experiences to help you plan your holiday fun accordingly. Happy holidays, San Diego!

Holiday Festivals in San Diego

Friday, November 17–Sunday, January 7
Coronado, Prices vary
Holidays at the Hotel Del Coronado are always magical, and this year they’ve transformed the beachfront Windsor Lawn into a winter wonderland of sparkling lights, enormous decorated trees, and snowy surprises at its “A Twenties Holiday Affair” extravaganza. Enjoy Skating by the Sea, with proceeds benefiting the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and photos with Santa available on select days. Warm up with sips and treats at the Frostbite Lounge or in your own beachside igloo, roast marshmallows, and create a beautiful gingerbread cottage.

Saturday, November 18–Sunday, January 7
Carlsbad, $89 and up
Grab the kids and head to Holidays at LEGOLAND California Resort for tons of festive decor, including a 30-foot LEGO Christmas tree decked out with LEGO ornaments, four festive zones—Peppermint Plaza, Merry Mistletoe Town, Wizard's Winter Hill, and Holidays in Miniland—each featuring seasonal entertainment and attractions, live entertainment, and holiday-themed food and beverages. For fun photo ops, hop on a sleigh with a life-size LEGO Santa and his trusted LEGO reindeer, join a festive sing-along show at Benny’s Ugly Sweater Party, and, of course, see real falling snow.

Friday, December 1–Saturday, December 2
Balboa Park, Free
Balboa Park shows off its holiday finery at December Nights, a family-friendly two-day event that features thousands of twinkling lights, live music, food, and free admission to select museums, exhibitions, and entertainment. The event runs from Friday from 3–11 pm, and Saturday from 11 am–11 pm. December Nights attracts more than 350,000 holiday revelers over two days, so streamline your visit with their handy transportation/parking info.

Friday, December 1–Friday, December 22
Spring Valley, $11.99–$19.99
At Noah Homes’ sixth annual Enchanted Village, you’ll walk through acres of holiday fun, including over one-million lights, interactive displays, magical cottages, live entertainers, a forest of giant candy canes, light tunnels and other festive decorations. Santa will be at the Enchanted Village every night for photos. Proceeds support the residents of Noah Homes, a nonprofit that provides housing, services, and advocacy for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Saturday, December 9
Pacific Beach, $30–$45
Burn off some of those holiday calories and have a blast while you’re doing it at the San Diego Santa Run 5K and 1 Mile Race. Runners have three race options—a 5K, a kid’s mile, and a Santa’s helper mile for you and your furry friend. 5K participants receive a free Sunny Santa suit to wear that includes a short sleeved jacket, shorts, hat, belt, beard, and sunglasses, plus a drink ticket (21+ only) that’s good at Mavericks Beach Club, 710 Beach Club, and Bub's at the Beach. Proceeds from the race benefit the Pacific Beach Holiday Parade, which conveniently starts right after the races end.

cocktail in a santa mug at belmont park
Photo courtesy of Belmont Park

Holiday Drinks in San Diego

Ongoing through Sunday, December 31
Temecula, Free entry
You’ll feel just like you’re in a Hallmark Christmas movie as Temecula Valley hosts Temecula Chilled, a month-long celebration of holiday décor, beautifully lit trees and merry amusements. Whether you make it a day trip or a longer stay in Temecula’s wine country, you can sip your way through festive wine tastings, taste the best of Old Town, and visit the various holiday markets for one-of-a-kind holiday shopping.

Saturday, December 18
Balboa Park, $40
Beer lovers can celebrate National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day (of course it exists) as the San Diego Model Railroad Museum hosts its 8th Annual Ales N’ Rails Ugly Christmas Sweater Party. Enjoy unlimited tastings from local craft breweries including Pizza Port Brewing Company, Bivouac Ciderworks, Athletic Brewing Co. and Chula Vista Brewery. There’ll be live music, amazing raffle drawing opportunities, food, and more, plus you’ll see all the museum model train exhibits up and running. Proceeds will go toward helping fund the museum’s unique exhibits, public programs, and the overall operations. 21+ only.

holiday cocktails at manchester grand hyatt san diego
Photo courtesy of Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego

Get into the holiday spirits

Various dates through January 4
Various locations, Prices vary
One of the great pleasures of the holiday season is gathering a few friends together and sipping some of the seasonal cocktails that have popped up on menus all over town, like the Christmapolitan or the Snowball Old-Fashioned at Belmont Park’s beloved holiday pop-up bar, Miracle. You’ll find it inside Draft from November 17–December 30.

Nason’s Beer Hall at Pendry San Diego and the ugly holiday sweater-wearing Tipsy Elves host Deck the Halls, starting Thanksgiving Day through January 4. Featuring thousands of twinkling lights and Nason’s traditionally over-the-top festivities, there’s weekly Tipsy Trivia Nights, decorate your own sweater cookie kits, and a trio of Tipsy Elves cocktails—Tipsy and Toasted, Tipsy and Bright, and Tipsy in Killarney. A portion of the proceeds goes to benefit the San Diego Food Bank.

Parq Nightclub transforms into “Santa’s Lair" on weekends from November 22–December 30, serving up premium holiday cocktails and warming hot chocolate drinks in a decked out, magical pop up that evokes Santa’s hideaway at the North Pole.

Get cozy in a winter wonderland, sans all that troublesome snow shoveling, at the Over The Top Holiday Lounge at Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego, starting on November 24th. The entire Top of The Hyatt will be gussied up in beautiful holiday decor, so you can sip holiday cocktails featuring Suntory and Maker’s Mark while relaxing by a snug hearth and enjoying the dazzling views of San Diego from the Hyatt’s 40th floor.

Holiday Lights in San Diego

Friday, December 1–Friday, December 30 (except December 24–25)
Old Town, $28 and up
Sit back and let your elf conductor take you on a tour full of festive winter spirit on Old Town Trolley’s Holiday Lights & Sights Tour. You’ll see the lights of Old Town, Embarcadero, and Balboa Park on your 75-minute ride, including a 15-minute stop at Seaport Village for holiday happenings. Reservations are required, and accessible tours are available by calling 619-298-8687, option #0, at least 24 hours in advance.

Friday, November 17–Sunday, January 7
Encinitas, $29
Wander through a festive one-mile loop at Lightscape at San Diego Botanic Garden, featuring the return of old favorites and shimmering new displays. Concession stands will have adult and non-alcoholic beverages and food available for purchase. The gardens will also be open nightly, with the exception of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Reservations are highly recommended and can be made online.

Sunday, December 10 and Sunday, December 17
Various locations, Free
The 53rd annual San Diego Bay Parade of Lights has taken the theme “Christmas Traditions around the World.” The wildly popular holiday boat parade attracts more than 100,000 spectators, who line the shores of San Diego Bay from the starting point at Shelter Island to the conclusion at the Ferry Landing in Coronado. You can also see the nearly 80 extravagantly decorated boats at Harbor Island, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, and the Pier at Cesar Chavez Park. Public transportation and carpooling is encouraged—parking near the best viewing areas is limited.

Thursday, December 14–Saturday, December 30 (select dates)
Del Mar Fairgrounds, $14.99–$19.99
Experience a magical evening filled with amazing light displays, ice skating, and visits with Santa Claus at Del Mar Fairgrounds Coastal Christmas Holiday Light Spectacular. Featuring over one-million lights, unlimited snow tubing with real snow, unlimited ferris wheel rides, fire pits, and live entertainment, Snow-N-Glow is one of the few events that will be open on Christmas Day.

Holiday Shows in San Diego

Friday, December 15–Sunday, December 24
San Diego Civic Theatre, $25–$129
The ultimate holiday dance battle returns to the San Diego Civic Theatre as Golden State Ballet and musicians from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra present The Nutcracker. Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s musical score, together with dazzling scenery, costumes, and beautiful choreography tell the beloved holiday tale of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince, with help from Drosselmeyer, the Mouse King, and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Friday, November 17– Sunday, December 24
Old Globe Theatre, $29 and up
We’re all familiar with Charles Dickens’ holiday story A Christmas Carol, but Ebenezer Scrooge’s BIG San Diego Christmas Show at the Old Globe Theatre reimagines it as a comedy set in San Diego. Quick, witty, and extravagantly theatrical, it’s a family-friendly retelling of the classic tale, full of music, laughter and a heartwarming lesson about the spirit of giving.

Thursday, December 28
Downtown, $39 and up
Chip Davis and Broadway San Diego bring the incredibly popular Mannheim Steamroller Christmas show to the Civic Theatre. The family-friendly program features the signature ensemble Mannheim Steamroller sound, along with multimedia special effects and lighting. Recommended for guests 6 years old and up.

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Mary Beth Abate is a San Diego-based freelance writer by way of Chicago and Los Angeles. Her hobbies include yoga, pickling and fermenting stuff, reading cookbooks and drinking fabulous gin. Keep up with her experiments @MaryBeth_Abate.